Last year's civil rights bill was a bad bill. In the form in which it came out of committee on April 24, this year's bill is worse. The measure will be put to a vote in the House in the next week or so. Let us pray.
A great many things are wrong with HR 1. It is touted as the foremost vehicle for taking minorities to a kind of promised land. No other bill affecting blacks has drawn such impassioned liberal support. Last year's battle over a civil rights bill, culminating in President Bush's sustained veto, was the hardest fought of them all.Yet the pending measure will do little or nothing to relieve the social and economic problems that weigh most heavily upon disadvantaged blacks. The bill won't greatly benefit them. It will benefit lawyers, and it will benefit them richly.
Under the litigious provisions of HR 1, the old incentives toward conciliation of grievances will go by the boards. In their place we will have platoons of lawyers, battalions of lawyers, whole divisions and armies of lawyers, squabbling over elusive definitions.
These hungry hordes will rush to the green fields of law. For fees of $100 an hour and up, they will seek to identify those employment practices that bear "a significant relationship to a significant business objective of the employer." They will search for the meaning of "successful performance of the job."
What will the bill do for the poor black family? Let us see. Section 203 is intended to overrule Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 109 S. Ct. 1775 (1979). The woman who gets to be a certified public accountant would be better enabled to sue for a partnership on grounds of sexual discrimination. Big deal.
Another section of HR 1 deals with fees for attorneys and expert witnesses. Splendid!
The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that the political locomotives behind this bill are running out of steam. Over the past year, as the nation's economy has slipped into recession, the political climate has changed.
To be sure, the bill contains a mealy-mouthed provision that "nothing in the amendments made by this act shall be construed to require or encourage an employer to adopt hiring or promotion quotas on the basis of race . . . "
But prudent employers, eager to avoid the destructive costs of interminable litigation, have not lost their senses. They will see that the bill does far more than merely return the law on discriminatory practices to the status of 1971. It tilts the tables. In sheer self-defense employers will adopt hiring practices by the numbers. This is racism. It ought to be abhorrent in a free society.
Two sections of the pending bill have merit. The first would extend willful discrimination to all aspects of employment. The second would fix a more generous period for application of seniority provisions in a union contract.
Those who are concerned with the plight of oppressed minorities could turn their energy to drugs, crime, better schools, and sensible policies of public health and welfare. Here they would find things to do that are truly worth doing.